The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1975, Volume 21, Number 1
James E. Moss, Editor

Book Review

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

San Francisco, 1846-1856: From Hamlet to City. By Roger W. Lotchin. New York. Oxford University Press. 1974. Index. Illustrations. Notes. 406 pages. $12.50.

Reviewed by John Bernard McGloin. S.J., Professor of History at the University of San Francisco. Among Father McGloin’s published works is California’s First Archbishop: The Life of Joseph Sadoc Alemany, 0. P. 1814-1888 (1966).

This book forms a part of the Urban Life in America Series which has been offered for the past several years by Oxford University Press. Some very substantial and worthy volumes have been issued in this series; it is a pleasure to write that this present offering carries on the best qualities of the previous volumes.

Actually, this reviewer did not arrive easily at the conclusion just stated. At first, because he found some of its pages rather pedestrian reading, he was, in some small measure, turned against an initially favorable response. However, a more careful reading plus some reflection now makes it much easier to praise the book as written by Professor Lotchin. Although there are some passages which have color and a bit of the verve one expects in a retelling of a decade of frontier growth in what San Franciscans still call “The City,” it would seem that what we have here is a carefully researched doctoral dissertation—possibly as a requirement for the doctoral degree in urban history at the University of Chicago—and there are not many such treatments that are outstanding for brilliant writing and/or color. Since this appears to be the nature of Doctoral Dissertations one cannot fault Lotchin for following accepted practice here. Further reflection convinced me also that, while the field of San Franciscana does not lack for lurid literary presentations—i.e. presentations in depth, and sometimes also in absurdity, of the “Jungle Thesis” which portrays the city as a delightfully wicked place, etc.,—it is both good and well to have the scholarly dimension at work in more correctly assessing a frontier civilization. For this careful presentation, then, the author deserves praise. Few who read these pages carefully will deny that Lotchin has done his homework and that, in the main, he has presented his findings with moderation and with no claim that any other interpretation is simply out of the question.

An interesting way of doing things is illustrated in the fact that, in lieu of a formal and lengthy bibliography, the author chose to introduce complete references in his footnotes and thus they emerge as working quotations rather than merely listings of books, articles, newspaper references and the like. Since a lengthy bibliography, especially when presented without comment or criticism, does little or nothing for the readers, this approach merits praise.

Essentially, then, this is an “in depth” study of a decade in the early history of San Francisco whose importance could hardly be exaggerated. In his treatment, the author enters, calmly but with some dogmatic statements, into such disputed areas as the Vigilance Movement which culminated in what he calls the “Revolution of 1856.” Some of his analysis here will be challenged. This is all to the good, for it appears evident that we are overdue for deeper and more thoughtful reflections and conclusions about the Vigilantes and how they went about their tasks. In this regard, too, Lotchin’s assessment of the character of James King of William (pp. 251 seq.) constitutes a needed re-evaluation of one who has been, too long, portrayed as a complete hero and is always presented as a “martyred journalist”—even by the author (p. 194)! Is it not logical to think that a reckless and crusading editor who specialized in abuse and in unproven assertions would have been overdue for an early demise with his boots on? When one examines the actual details of the Casey-King of William encounter, a good case can be made that, instead of an assassination resulting in martyrdom, it was a frontier feud which seems more like a duel—i.e. Casey’s “greeting” before firing: “James King of William, are you armed”? Only after King reached under his talma to pull his derringer did Casey fire. Assassination? Martyrdom? Hardly so.

Among the more current presentations—i.e. of ideas whose time seems now to have come—one should recommend ch.XI “Urban Institutions” for an engaging account of the place of women in San Francisco during the decade from 1846 to 1856. Incidentally, the Jesuit establishment of St. Ignatius Academy in 1855 gets scant mention on p. 321—perhaps that is all that the struggling school (which became St. Ignatius College in 1859 and the University of San Francisco only in 1930) really deserved in the overall portrait presented by Lotchin.

Some small points: First, Father Anthony Langlois (p. 323) the first pastor of St. Francis Church in San Francisco was not a Jesuit, but a secular priest. Second, “. . .Even the monolithic Catholic church witnessed German discontent with Irish prominence in the hierarchy . . .” (p. 324). Hardly, for Archbishop Alemany of San Francisco was a Catalan and more German in his background (the name was originally “Aleman”, Spanish word for “German.”). However, these are but minor details and this reviewer would like, once more, to commend Professor Lotchin for his well-presented addition to the literature of San Francisco. Finally, the last few pages of his study provide good reflections on the “Importance of San Francisco”—music to the ears of this teacher, for twenty-five years now, of the history of The City!